At a moment when many of us are dismayed by the U.S. election results, enraged by the recent surge in hate crimes, and concerned about the overall direction of the country, it's fitting that this week's topic in The Art of Self-Coaching, the class I teach at Stanford, was Unhappiness. Most of the texts I've selected in the course draw upon research from neuroscience and positive psychology, but this week we looked further afield to Stoic philosophy, a form of psychoanalysis known as logotherapy, and the Buddhist tradition.
Our readings included journalist Oliver Burkeman's The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, which includes a lucid overview of Stoicism, as well as Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy, and I've found it helpful to return to both of them this week. But the reading that I found most compelling was When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun and author. Here are a few excerpts and what they evoke in me:
Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. [p 8]
I began my career as a journalist, and I wrote frequently about homelessness, which has been a problem here in the Bay Area for decades. Eventually I decided that I wanted be on the front lines, working to address the issue directly rather than writing about it, and I then spent seven years working with and helping to lead organizations that provided support to homeless and low-income families in San Francisco. I learned many things during those years, and one of the most important lessons was a recognition that solutions are incomplete and transitory, and problems are much bigger and more complex than we realize. We can make progress and we can offer help in an individual life and in a larger social system, but we rarely--if ever--solve problems in permanent, fundamental ways.
Recognizing this must not result in complacency or resignation--to do that would be to turn away from suffering and ignore our moral obligation to ease it--but a failure to recognize the cyclical and impermanent nature of life dooms us to frustration and failure. Things come together, and then they fall apart. The challenge is to find ways to work toward solutions, to strive to come together again and again and again, while knowing that achieving a solution "once and for all" is an impossibility and that falling apart is inevitable.
What we find as practitioners is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. If we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. It just keeps returning with new names, forms and manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter, without hesitating or retreating into ourselves. [p 66]
I don't yet know what there is for me to learn from the present situation in the U.S., but I do know that it's there, and it's important, and it's not going away. Although I stepped forward to do the difficult work described above, I've also made many retreats over the years. I moved to San Francisco a quarter-century ago--I literally ran to the other end of the continent--in part because it felt like a refuge. After seven years in social services, I left the field to go to business school. After a lifetime of political engagement, I began directing more of my attention elsewhere about a decade ago. I don't regret these retreats--they each served a purpose at the time--but they deferred what now feels like a necessary reckoning with the world I find myself in today.
There are many different ways to turn toward experience, of course, but one that seems particularly important at the moment is the initiation of difficult conversations about difference. While I've been less connected with the political process in recent years, I have worked hard to better understand social identity and the ways that gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, income, education, class, and other differences affect our lived experience. It's not lost on me that my ability to pull back from politics to focus on my personal work has derived in part from privileges I enjoy as a result of my own social identity--that of a straight, white American man with an elite education. Thus the fact that I can write above about "dismay" and "concern," when I know many others feel terror and grief (and still others feel hope and enthusiasm).
There are so many connections between social identity and this political moment--the persistence of sexism and racism, the rise of nativist xenophobia, the resentment of the working class and poor toward economic and cultural elites. And I suspect that whatever we are to learn from this moment, as individuals and as societies, we will be obligated to step into more conversations about these topics, and to do so in a way that results in mutual understanding rather than defensiveness and antagonism. I'm under no illusions about the potential for permanent solutions--see above--nor do I think that dialogue alone is sufficient to insure progress. But we won't learn anything without it.
What began as an enormous open space becomes a forest fire, a world war, a volcano erupting, a tidal wave. We use our emotions. We use them. In their essence, they are simply part of the goodness of being alive, but instead of letting them be, we take them and use them to regain our ground. We use them to try to deny that in fact no one has ever known or will ever know what's happening. We use them to try to make everything secure and predictable and real again, to fool ourselves about what's really true. We could just sit with the emotional energy and let it pass. There's no particular need to spread blame and justification. Instead, we throw kerosene on the emotion so it will feel more real. [p 70]
Much of my work as a coach and teacher involves what I call emotion management, which doesn't mean seeking to suppress or control our emotions, but, rather, to enhance our ability to understand and make use of our them as we navigate the world. This often involves a greater openness to our emotional experience and a greater willingness to truly feel our feelings, but that's not to say that we should simply give way before our emotions and allow them to determine our actions. As Chödrön notes, in the midst of difficulties we may exploit our feelings to justify our positions and beliefs, to create a false sense of security and predictability when the world around us is anything but secure or predictable. While our emotions have a useful role to play in helping us cope with and respond to the difficulties ahead, the task is to remain in touch with our feelings while not allowing them to exhaust us or dictate our perspective.
Some of the most challenging emotions in this context are those that tend to evoke defensiveness--embarrassment, guilt, shame. We often react violently to these emotional states because we find them so intolerable and difficult to bear. We deny that we're experiencing them (despite ample evidence to the contrary). We distance ourselves forcefully from the people and situations that we associate with these emotions. We hide our vulnerability under fits of self-righteous anger. And we look for others to blame--we need them to take responsibility for our discomfort.
These dynamics are problematic enough in day-to-day life under ordinary circumstances, and they're even more difficult to deal with now because so many of the larger issues at play inevitably trigger defensiveness. In my experience it's simply not possible to have the kinds of conversations about social identity that I mention above without feeling some embarrassment, guilt, or shame, and without that resulting in defensiveness. And all too often this ends in shouting matches or slamming doors. The key is to follow Chödrön's guidance--to just sit with these emotions, as uncomfortable as they are, and to avoid turning them into self-righteous anger, as good as that feels. The solution is to lower the shield of our defensiveness that we automatically raise when we believe we're under attack. And to do this we must make peace with our vulnerability. We must become comfortable with our discomfort.
We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged enough or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who's awake, that's death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn't have any fresh air. There's no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later, we're going to have an experience that we can't control: our house is going to burn down, someone we love is going to die, we're going to find out we have cancer, a brick is going to fall out of the sky and hit us on the head...
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. [p 70]
A theme in Chödrön's work and many of the other texts I ask my students to read for The Art of Self-Coaching is recognizing where we have agency and control, as well as the limits on our agency and control. One of the most important findings from positive psychology is our ability to influence our sense of happiness and fulfillment in life through consistent daily practices, such as meditation, and through the adoption of certain mental models, such as a growth mindset. But a potential downside of this perspective is that it can leave us ill-equipped to handle the inevitable challenges that are beyond our influence. This is true at the personal level, where any number of tragedies will befall us no matter how often we meditate, how far we jog, or what we eat every day, and that truth is compounded at the societal level, where no amount of political activism or organizing will guarantee a desired outcome. And yet again, the task is to not allow awareness of the limits on our agency result in resignation or complacency. We have to do what we can, while recognizing that it may not be enough. We have to build our nest and find comfort in it, while preparing to be thrown out of it over and over again.
We often find ourselves in the middle of a dilemma--what should I do about the fact that somebody is angry at me? What should I do about the fact that I'm angry with somebody? Basically, the instruction is not to try to solve the problem but instead to use it as a question about how to let this very situation wake us up further rather than lull us into ignorance. We can use a difficult situation to encourage ourselves to take a leap, to step out of that ambiguity.
This teaching applies to even the most horrendous situations life can dish out. Jean-Paul Sartre said that there are two ways to go to the gas chamber, free or not free. This is our choice in every moment. Do we relate to our circumstances with bitterness or with openness?
That is why it can be said that whatever occurs can be regarded as the path and that all things, not just some things, are workable. This teaching is a fearless proclamation of what's possible for ordinary people like you and me. [pp 145-6]
By citing this passage, with its reference to the gas chambers, I'm not making an analogy between the U.S. in 2016 and Nazi Germany, although I know people who fear that we're taking steps in that direction. But I value Chödrön's reminder that even in the worst possible circumstances, we always have a choice as to how we face them. This point is also made by Viktor Frankl, another author assigned to my students this week. Frankl was a psychiatrist who spent four years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz. By the end of the war his pregnant wife, his parents and his brother had been murdered; among his immediate family, only he and his sister survived. It was after these experiences that he wrote Man's Search for Meaning, which includes this moving passage:
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation--just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer--we are challenged to change ourselves...
But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering--provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political... [pp 112-13]
This election cycle has served to remind me vividly just how much suffering there is in so many different places right now. And I'm particularly aware of the suffering that has increased over the past week as hateful bigots now seem to feel even greater license to harass, intimidate, and terrorize women, people of color, gays and lesbians, Jews and Muslims, among others. Those of us who oppose this bigotry do not face a hopeless situation, by any means, and yet it now seems likely that there will be more tragedies and more suffering to come. But this is the path, and it's our task to face it with openness, whatever that means for each of us.
Photo by Rain Rannu. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.